In the spring of 2010, the Serbian Cultural Center “Opancici” emerged as a dynamic and independent champion of Serbian tradition, culture, and heritage in the heart of the United States. The brainchild behind this cultural enterprise was a physician and a senior leader within the FDA’s public health sector Danica Marinac-Dabic, who was driven by a vision to create a space where the thriving Serbian community in the DC area could gather and pay homage to their roots, culture, and identity.
The establishment of “Opancici” was firmly rooted in four foundational pillars. “The first pillar was a pride in our Serbian roots, rich and diverse culture, strong sense of identity, and our unique heritage,” Danica Marinac-Dabic explained. “The second was a duty and privilege to share that heritage with others. The third was an imperative to pass heritage to our children, the next generation of Serbian Americans. The fourth was a family-based approach in which the families would join forces to bring multi-generational energy and passion to this organization,” added Danica Marinac-Dabic. She envisioned “Opancici” as a way to build on legacy efforts and harness novel, dynamic ways of celebrating the best of Serbia in America. Today, “Opancici” is best known for its dance ensembles and the richness of its traditional handmade costumes, but Marinac-Dabic emphasizes that the preservation of Serbian language, history, and culture is embedded in their performances.
“It’s critical to recognize that the understanding of history and its influences on Serbian culture are embedded in our dance performances,” Marinac-Dabic said. “We teach our children the larger context, like why the Serbs in Vojvodina region of Serbia wear folklore costumes so much differently than Serbs living in Kosovo and Metohija.”
For Danica Marinac-Dabic, a Serbian-American woman of great fortitude, preserving her beloved Serbian culture and tradition has not come without its challenges. “Second only to medicine, folklore dancing has been a lifelong passion of mine. I have danced folklore since elementary school, and it was not a coincidence that shortly after moving to the Washington DC area I began voluntary work teaching folklore dancing to children in the St. Luke Serbian Orthodox Church,” she said.
In the days before the internet, preserving traditional Serbian culture was a difficult and laborious task. Finding suitable music files for children’s folklore and choreography was a daunting challenge that required time, effort, and dedication. But despite the odds stacked against her, Danica persevered, fueled by an unwavering passion to keep her cultural heritage alive and thriving.
Danica’s volunteer work teaching Serbian folklore dancing had a ripple effect that went far beyond the walls of the St. Luke Serbian Orthodox Church. As a physician at the US Food and Drug Administration, she was pleased to find that her colleagues were supportive of her efforts and recognized the value of celebrating diversity and building relations between different cultures. “They frequently attended Opancici annual celebrations, and some even joined our adult dancing ensemble to better immerse in Serbian culture,” she said. Years later, while serving on the Board of Directors of Strathmore, Danica continued to promote opportunities to celebrate Serbian traditional music.
A few weeks ago, during a Serbian Heritage Night at the NBA Nuggets and Wizards game, “Opancici” performed the famous Brankovo kolo, donning vibrant traditional costumes. The performance conveyed a powerful message of bringing everyone together in an open circle, promoting unity and harmony.
But that’s not all.
In the wake of their previous work with Tesla Nation movie, which received a nod for the 2020 Oscars award, Optimistic film company and Zeljko Mirkovic have embarked on a new cinematic endeavor: Kolo—The Soul Dance, a documentary film and TV series.
The DC episode of the series was filmed at some of the most iconic locations in the nation’s capital, such as the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the White House featuring Danica Marinac-Dabic and “Opancici.”
“KOLO is like the finest thread which connects the spiritual and secular values of the Serbian individual and collective being,” explained Danica. “It enriches us anew with the purity of our folklore heritage and does not allow Serbs to be ripped out from our roots.”
The KOLO dance represents a vital part of the Serbian cultural identity, and the film and TV series serve as a love letter to this cherished tradition. It’s no wonder, then, that KOLO was recognized by UNESCO in 2017 and included on the list of intangible world heritage.
How Danica Marinac-Dabic’s father shaped her leadership style and work ethics
Serbian-American women can break the glass ceiling and succeed in top leadership positions based on personal choice, talent, and a desire to be transformational, according to Danica Marinac-Dabic. From her experience as a physician and a senior leader within the FDA’s public health sector, gender barriers did not hinder her career progression, as she grew up in an environment without notable gender inequalities and maintained strong ties with Serbia.
“Leadership by men or women should be a matter of personal choice, talent and desire to be transformational, to harness the privilege of mentorship, to motivate others, to lead by example and to be aware of sacrifices and sustained energy required to achieve healthy work-life balance,” she said.
Danica Marinac-Dabic believes that the success of a leader, regardless of gender, often rests on the foundation built and acquired at home. She attributes her values, work ethics, and leadership style to her father, a role model and mentor who was a Neuropsychiatrist and the Department Chair at a major regional hospital in Serbia.
“I was blessed to have a father who was my role model and mentor both as a physician and a person. His recent passing just reinforced my conviction of how much my values, work ethics, and leadership style were shaped by my Dad’s legacy as a Neuropsychiatrist and the Department Chair at the major regional hospital in Serbia,” Marinac-Dabic opened up.
“One must dream big, care for others more than for oneself and not to fear change throughout,” she added.
“I would give a single advice to young women leaders that would be not to hide behind perceived or true gender inequalities nor to run solely on gender equality opportunities. Strong woman is first and foremost a strong person. The rest are the details,” she noted.
As the great Serbian poet Jovan Ducic once wrote, it is our soul that shapes the very canvas of our world. And for Danica Marinac-Dabic, true leadership demands that we invest our very essence in a higher cause. “To succeed as a leader one needs to put one’s soul into a greater good.” she said. In her case, that noble pursuit has always been rooted in the fields of public health, women’s health, and the celebration of Serbian folklore heritage – a trinity of causes that speak to the very core of her being.
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